‘Moana’ animator Jorge Ruiz Cano reveals sneak peek, tricks of trade

Moana
Crystal Zhong/Staff

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On Tuesday, campus organizations Business Careers in Entertainment, or BCEC, and Cinebears co-hosted a sneak peek of Disney’s latest animated adventure “Moana,” featuring a presentation and question-and-answer session from Disney character animator Jorge Ruiz Cano.

Ruiz Cano is a perfect Disney ambassador — infectiously enthusiastic and quick to burst into song. With Ruiz Cano as a guide, the intimate audience in the Martin Luther King Student Union was invited along an exclusive journey across the Polynesian Islands to learn about “Moana,” watch new footage and get advice from one of the most successful animators in the field.

As the first Polynesian Disney princess (though not the first heroine — that would be Lilo of 2002’s “Lilo and Stitch”), Moana is under warranted scrutiny from viewers eager for greater Polynesian media representation but tired of seeing well-meaning but offensively inaccurate portrayals of characters of color.

Disney is well aware of this responsibility, and Ruiz Cano stressed the careful research that went into “Moana.” Directors Ron Clements and John Musker made research trips all over the South Pacific to consult with locals about everything from tattoos to shipbuilding to language. Ruiz Cano called it their “Polynesian Brain Trust.”

Ruiz Cano did his own research as well. He read about ships, attended workshops and conferences and hung out with the crew of the Hokule’a — a voyaging canoe which retraces the journey ancient Polynesians took thousands of years ago to reach Hawaii. This brave voyage figures heavily in “Moana.”

Disney seems to be headed in the right direction. Moana is voiced by 14-year-old native Hawaiian Auli’i Cravalho. She’s refreshingly free of a love interest, accompanied instead by adorable animal sidekicks and the demigod Maui, voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who is half-Samoan. Opeteia Foa’i of the Oceanic music group Te Vaka is part of the musical team (which includes Lin-Manuel Miranda from “Hamilton”). People of  Polynesian descent were heavily involved in the production behind and in the scenes — a noteworthy detail considering the prevalence of whitewashing in films.

“Moana” follows a fairly typical adventure narrative. On a mission to save her home, Motonui, adventurous princess Moana sets sail with the reluctant help of Maui. Along the way, the mismatched pair encounter various monsters, but most importantly, Moana discovers her true identity as she fulfills the oceanic legacy of her ancestors.

The scenes previewed reveal a Hayao Miyazaki-esque fixation with nature, a “Mad Max”-inspired battle scene with the tiny but violent coconut-clad Kakamora and the fact that Disney has truly perfected the art of heart-meltingly adorable CGI baby eyes.

Ruiz Cano was not always convinced by CGI, though the artistry of studios like Pixar would change his mind. Growing up in Venezuela, he was attracted to hand-drawn classics. He was especially inspired by “Aladdin.”  

In line for “Aladdin,” Ruiz Cano was robbed at knifepoint of his watch and wallet. “I went into the movies and I forgot all about it. … I forgot all of that because I was transported into this world,” he said. That was true movie magic, and Ruiz Cano wanted to be a part of it.

“I realized that I needed to freakin’ be the best in order to be with the studios that I dreamt of,” he said.

On a mission to be the best, Ruiz Cano moved to the U.S. at 16 to study media art and design in Florida. From there, he moved cross country to the Bay Area, birthplace of CGI animation, to get his character animation masters at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Ruiz Cano also took on a diverse resume — animating for video games, education programs, the NHL and live action films and eventually working at Pixar as an intern.

Ruiz Cano emphasized the necessity of taking initiative. “It was me making B stuff A,” he said. “Anything that I could see, even if it’s the smallest task, I would have fun with it and I would go beyond.” No job was below him, and he was always the first to arrive and last to leave.

As for networking, he said: “It comes down as simple to being a kind person, to anyone. … Karma is a thing.”

The hard work paid off, and Disney finally called — but when it did, Ruiz Cano turned it down. He was already contracted to another company, and as a rookie animator, he didn’t want to burn any bridges. “I didn’t think they’d call back,” he said, but Disney did. It called back three times, and Ruiz Cano was busy three times. It was on the fourth try that he began his dream job as a Disney animator.

The job looks like a perfect fit — Ruiz Cano’s plucky determination and kind-hearted optimism are distinctly Disney. Like Moana, he felt the draw of his passion and he followed.

Miyako Singer covers theater. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @miyasinger.